Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1912, Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, wrote about The Lost World, a plateau in South America where Dinosaurs were still alive. At the end of The Lost World, Professor Challenger and his crew escaped the plateau and returned to England without bringing any dinosaurs along. Recently, there has been an increaed interest in this novel, partially fueled by Michael Crichton's sequel to Jurassic Park which borrowed Conan Doyle's title. More recently, Greg Bear has decided to write a sequel to Conan Doyle's work, based on the supposition that once discovered, the dinosaurs of The Lost World would be captured and exhibited around the world.
By the mid-1940s, interest in dinosaurs has flagged. Most circuses and zoos which had the creatures did not take care of them and they have died off. The political situation in Venezuela has changed so no more dinosaurs can be removed, and Lothar Gluck's Dinosaur Circus, one of the last remaining exhibits of the animals, is about to close. Anthony Belzoni and his teenage son Peter have been hired by National Geographic to write about the last of the dinosaur circuses.
What begins, for Peter, as a reasonably tame excursion to Boston to see the Dinosaur Circus, quickly becomes a more fantastic voyage as the Belzonis find themselves accompanying the remaining dinosaurs to South America where they will be repatriated to their ancestral home. In many ways, Dinosaur Summer can be seen as a retelling of the original The Lost World, at least as far as plot is concerned. What makes this novel different are the characters and the scientific background.
The relationship between the Belzonis seems rather odd. Anthony Belzoni has been separated from his wife for a couple of years when the novel opens. Peter lives with his father, although frequently it is difficult to envision their relationship as a father-son relationship. They seem to be more akin to siblings or friends. It becomes clear early on that Anthony has a take-life-as-it-comes attitude while Peter has adopted his mother's more worry-prone outlook on life. Peter, therefore, sees himself as his father's guardian.
Peter is at an awkward age as a teenager when the story begins, although Bear never clearly states his exact age. Eschewing many of the things which give his father pleasure, hiking, the physical life, etc., Peter prefers to sit back and read. Although Peter accepts his father's job offer to write a piece about the circus for National Geographic, he expresses concern because he feels he lacks writing talent and admits to Ray Harryhausen that he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. Peter's expedition with the dinosaurs turns into a coming of age story as he learns more about himself and his abilities.
Unfortunately, Bear's 1940s is not particularly distinctive. If the author hadn't told us when the story was taking place, it could have been set at just about any time, although the characters are limited by the technology available.
Another problem with the book is that at times Bear is not able to heighten the tension as much as necessary. In an early chapter, when Vince Shellabarger faces off with a venator in Gluck's Circus, Bear keeps jumping around between the action in the cage and periferal action which seems to catch Peter's attention. The result is that the face-off between man and creature losing some of its drama. Later in the novel when Bear tries to build on the tension in this scene it is diluted because he didn't stay focussed here.
Bear has enjoyed more than eighty years of scientific advances beyond what Conan Doyle could use as a basis for his knowledge. Several species of dinosaur which were unknown when Conan Doyle was writing have been discovered. More is known about the dinosaurs which appeared in the original novel as well and a wealth of conflicting theories about dinosaurs allow Bear to flesh out the animals more than Conan Doyle ever could.
Perhaps the one thing which sets Dinosaur Summer apart from all other books is the inclusion of several black and white illustrations throughout as well as five full-color glossy plates painted by Tony DiTerlizzi. These paintings portray Peter as a gawky teenager surrounded by large dinosaurs who seem to owe something of their form to the illustrations of James Gurney.
In many ways, Dinosaur Summer has the feel of a juvenile written in the 1950s or 1960s. The complete lack of female characters, with the exception of Peter's absent mother and three Hollywood starlets who never speak, is notably and almost makes the reader think Bear was attempting to write a Boy's Life serial. For anyone who remembers those serials, Dinosaur Summer is a fond return to that age.
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